Move over, Arthur, you've had your day
Politicians sell us our government the same way corporates sell us their drink, writes Gene Kerrigan
THERE'S a column that we responsible journalists traditionally publish the week before a referendum. You know the one – a column that weighs up the choices. Maybe advocating a Yes or a No, but stressing that above all you must get out and exercise your right to vote. Because that's what the patriotic heroes of old died for – your right to make a meaningless choice between two equally bad options.
Well, I tried to write that column. But, we all know the truth – there's no one in the country, except political hacks, who can seriously contemplate the Seanad without dozing off. Not even Enda Kenny, the lad who came up with the abolition idea in 2009, a marketing stunt designed to improve his image.
In fact, speaking of marketing stunts invented in 2009, this Seanad referendum has Arthur's Day written all over it. An artificial event, invented solely to advance the interests of its inventor – with little basis in reality.
So, let's leave the Seanad aside and consider the far more significant issue of Arthur's Day itself. Not the drinking aspect, which is beside the point. Let's consider the part Arthur's Day has come to play in the unfolding destiny of this great little nation. And let's see how the Seanad hullabaloo fits right in.
Now, the worry about Arthur's Day promoting alcohol abuse is valid, but a little overdone. We abuse alcohol on Patrick's Day, Halloween, All-Ireland Sundays, at First Holy Communions, weddings, funerals and whatever you're having yourself. So, the Arthur's Day drinkathon is just one more excuse to get swivel-eyed.
Mind you, there's a 30 per cent increase in ambulance call-outs on Arthur's Day, and maybe we should send the bill for that to Arthur.
We can't knock Diageo for trying to sell more drink – you might as well condemn a greyhound for chasing a hare. It's the nature of the beast. But if we stand back a bit and look at what's happening, well...
We celebrate a variety of national "days", from New Year's Day through St Patrick's Day, Easter Monday to Christmas Day. These cultural landmarks evolved from our national life. Christmas Day, for instance, has roots in pagan times – a relief from the rigours of winter. It was transformed and enhanced by Christianity, and again by market forces.
Patrick's Day used to be a dull parade of commercial vans and trucks. An occasional "float" went past, with sheepish folk waving tentatively at bored spectators. It was a dutiful gesture towards the national saint, but no one's heart was in it. It was the Yanks who made a big thing of Paddy's Day. Emigrants and their descendants proudly asserted their identity. Their exuberant example, and a desire to attract greater numbers of tourists, inspired an overhaul of the Irish celebrations.
These things emerge gradually from within our culture, they evolve as our culture changes. Along the way, they're validated by the State, and declared public holidays.
Arthur's Day is the first corporate attempt to create a day of national celebration. Validated not by the State but by a cabal of marketing chaps with a big budget and boundless ambition. Given the political and social clout of corporate culture, it was inevitable that some corporate body would eventually try to name a day after itself.
For historical reasons, Guinness had an edge. But we should not rule out a future Tommy's Day, sponsored by Tesco. (The original TES was Thomas Edward Stockwell). The company was founded in 1919, so they've six years to get their act together. Perhaps a Ryanair Day, a Paddy Power Day, a Tayto Day. Why not? With a big enough marketing budget, anything's possible.
These days, corporate branding can be found in education, research, sport, art, culture – no one goes to Lansdowne anymore, they go to the Aviva. Athletes are pockmarked with corporate logos, universities have repositioned themselves as suppliers of corporate needs. The highest paid educators are increasingly spoken of as CEOs. All of this is reflected in TV shows in which slightly desperate people compete to play cartoon versions of entrepreneurs.
At a political level, companies pay lobbyists to influence and even write legislation – which is cut and pasted into law by politicians. Politicians willingly meet constituents, but corporate lobbyists skip every queue. Corporate finance has a direct line into the Taoiseach's office, via the Clearing House Information Group.
Given the dominance of corporate culture, the politicians knew their place when bankers demanded a response to the impending collapse of Anglo. Would a blanket guarantee be alright for ye, lads?
Of course, whatever about corporate ambition and political subservience, Arthur's Day couldn't survive without the cooperation of a substantial section of the citizenry. The idea could have died in 2009 without a genuine response from so many – all those smiley people holding a pint in the air and following the corporate script. To some extent, it was an easy sell – Hey, let's get pissed! And here's a band to listen to as you lower the pints!
And there's always been a forelock-tugging element in our makeup. Ah, that's a great idea, so it is, yer Lordship – isn't that a great idea his Lordship's after having, Mary?
Many hold the rich in genuine awe, which is why there's nothing but admiration for those – Google, Starbucks, Amazon – who carry out multinational manoeuvres to ensure they're taxed on an itsy-bitsy fraction of their income. And, if they splash out some money, we'll play along when they name a day after themselves.
And, seen from that angle, it makes sense that 97 per cent of TDs have less influence on legislation than the average corporate lobbyist. And when, in consequence, we end up with a broken country – ah, sure, we're never truly broke as long as we have the price of a pint.
The politicians sell us our government the same way the corporates sell us their drink. Politics is presented as drama – who are you up for? This crowd or the other shower? The issues are unimportant, they're just something to have a staged row about.
So, we have Micheal Martin – who used to want the Seanad abolished – arguing for its retention and reform. And Enda Kenny – who wanted it retained and reformed – demanding it be abolished. Michael McDowell (who wanted it killed off) now promotes himself as the saviour of the Seanad. Sinn Fein want it abolished – but back in May, here was
their senator, David Cullinane: "What we're getting is simple abolition. We don't accept that. We think reform is the way forward."
You have to wonder how these guys keep track of which side of the argument they're on this week.
Fine Gael says abolition will save €20m, but that's not true. The No side promises reform but there will be none. Keeping the Seanad achieves nothing. Abolishing it achieves nothing. The referendum is a marketing stunt – dreamt up when Enda Kenny was behind Eamon Gilmore in the polls. He needed a dramatic initiative. There are times when the sad, manipulative world of marketing seems wholesome, compared with the bottomless cynicism of politics.
Anyway, remember to vote next Friday – it's Enda's Day.